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BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3; WAGNER: Parsifal: Act II; Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod – Kirsten Flagstad, soprano (Kundry)/ Birgit Nilsson (Isolde)/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Hans Knappertsbusch – Praga Digitals

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3 in d minor; WAGNER: Parsifal: Act II: “Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust”;  Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod – Kirsten Flagstad, soprano (Kundry)/ Birgit Nilsson (Isolde)/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Hans Knappertsbusch – Praga Digitals PRD 350 140, 77:13 (7/28/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:

The inimitable “Kna” makes his presence felt in Bruckner and Wagner staples he passionately endorsed.

Culled from studio recordings 1954-1959, these performances celebrate the majestic realizations of conductor Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965), as often celebrated as criticized for his slow tempos and rhythmic mannerisms. The 1954 recording of the Bruckner Third employs the 1877 version as edited by Theodor Raettig.  The work seems infiltrated with allusions to and quotations from both Beethoven and Wagner, while its structural evolution follows the lyrical model of Schubert, with his tendency to utilize laendler tropes and chorale progressions. The music possesses a fervent sincerity that somehow has survived the numerous revisions and cuts the composer imposed upon his original ideas, excising many of the references to Wagner operas. Still, enough of Die Walkuere remains to justify the reference to the piece as the “Wagner Symphony.”

The combination of nervous tension—a d minor ostinato—and ostentatious triumph that marks the opening measures of the work persists throughout, the periods interrupted by moments of rapturous meditation in F Major that embrace nature and religious ecstasy. The VPO trumpet work quite blazes forth, only to relent in repeated string sequences that invite a hazy grandeur. The final pages of the first movement achieve a frenzied, layered intensity whose momentary interruption by the flute solo appears like a child’s voice in the midst of an avalanche.

The E-flat Adagio indulges Bruckner’s mystical persuasion, invoking both the Marienkadenz in Mozart and Haydn masses, but a strong suggestion of the “sleep” leitmotiv in Die Walkuere.  The hymn meanders, but Knappertsbusch paces its intimate progression without any sag in the unfolding line. Often, the pastoral musing alternates with a plodding anthem, the music saturated with a sense of both light and space, courtesy of VPO strings and energized brass choirs. The d minor Scherzo carries its own, singing momentum. The pedal points ground a chugging, then swaggering progression, the rustic, jaunty Trio in A Major. The spirit of the music so resembles Mahler that we wish Knappertsbusch had indulged in a recording of that composer’s bucolic moments.  The Finale: Allegro opens with manic figures in d minor, that suddenly taper into a rocking, Austrian peasant dance in F-sharp major, a flippant polka that Bruckner wishes to juxtapose against intimations of mortality. Hints of Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” manage to illuminate the filigree, again in contrast to the hymnal and alternately rustic character of the music, moving with inexorable desire to a D Major peroration, which Knappertsbusch and company obviously believe in.

In Act II, Scene 2 of Wagner’s Parsifal, set in Klingsor’s castle on the island of Montsalvat, Kundry recalls her vision of the baby Parsifal’s nursing on his mother’s breast. The years pass, and Parsifal matures, only to abandon his home, saddening his mother to the point of death. Recorded in 1955, the voice of Kirsten Flagstad has retained its flowing resonance, although with a bit of shatter in the highest notes.

The 1958 recording of the Prelude to Act I and the “Mild und leise wie er laechet” from the finale of Tristan marks a powerful collaboration between Knappertsbusch and Birgit Nilsson, whose voice can sometimes ring metallic but whose flexible strength remains undeniable. The great VPO cello line in the Prelude justifies everything in the conductor’s reputation for musical conviction, the slow unfolding of the line perfect. When the two musicians blend for the undulating, erotically charged Love-Death, the effect grips and soars simultaneously. This one gets aired on my radio show—soon!

—Gary Lemco

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